Opens Fri., June 18
For those who know Rivers solely as a surgically enhanced grotesquerie of shrill red-carpet commentary, the doc Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work definitely is mind-expanding. You learn she is a passably interesting creature. Once Johnny Carson’s night-off replacement, she now hyper-swears, borderline uncomfortably, through angry, bitter, pissy gigs at lodges, Midwestern casinos and on Vegas stages. She’s at once anxious and vulnerable, speed-talking through edgy jokes (anal sex! Waterboarding isn’t as bad as a bikini wax!) and fighting off tears over current exhaustion or past tragedies (her husband committed suicide in 1987).
Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg make no great claim to her as a comedian; when we see her filing cabinets, filled with every joke she’s ever written, the camera dwells over one drawer co-labeled “Tony Danza.” But it makes a strong case for her as a hard worker. She shucks and jives as relentlessly as a scrabbled, penniless wannabe newcomer, but she’s also a septuagenarian pop-culture staple whose lavish apartment she herself compares to Versailles. She’s afraid to retire. In fact, she’s afraid to have a day off. At her peak—at which she finally arrives at the end of the doc’s year of coverage, thanks to winning Celebrity Apprentice—she’s doing talk shows, award shows, book singings, breakfast lectures, QVC, etc., etc. As a staffer puts it, “Joan will turn nothing down. Nothing.”
Piece of Work offers valuable insight into a certain pathology: a workaholic, never-retiring, do-anything insanity that isn’t about working towards something, but simply working. But it’s still nothing new. In fact, this kind of doc is becoming disturbingly commonplace. Take a washed-up celebrity. Follow them around on a “warts-and-all” exposé. Show their flaws. Show their unflattering cock-ups. (Ha ha! Joan Rivers spells it “vigina!”) But also love them. Give them a shoulder to cry on. Humanize them.
But interesting as Piece of Work is, it’s more than a little too close to PR work, an infomercial shilling a not-untouchable-after-all celebrity who whines amidst unimaginable wealth and privilege.